Sunday, 21 June 2009

Revisiting Mark Latham

I have a long academic relationship with Mark Latham. Not that he would know it. He is partially responsible for my greatest professional triumph, namely obtaining first class Honours in political science. He provided so much fodder to explore both the good and bad aspects of the ALP; I was really lucky to stumble across the topic to explore issues of Labor Party leadership in such great depth. Latham is the political equivalent of Michael Jackson, talented with a gift unlike any other, but supremely and monumentally deluded as a result of his own genius.

I met Latham once when he was Shadow Treasurer under Crean in June 2003. I was at a local ALP function, which was simultaneously designed to raise funds for the Sunshine Coast ALP and to promote his book From The Suburbs. He wowed the partisan crowd in his usual town hall meeting style and we all believed that we were witnessing the next Prime Minister of Australia. I am not ashamed to admit that I was an ardent supporter of Latham’s both before and after he became leader of my great party, though you will be hard pressed to find anybody else who is willing to admit it. Kind of like trying to find someone who will willingly admit that they voted for John Howard in four consecutive elections.

The trouble with most Labor members is that we expect every one of our leaders to measure up to Whitlamesque standards. They must have a reformist zeal, they must have a commanding presence, and they must have a supreme intellect. Latham was the closest thing the Party had to Whitlam since the Dismissal. Not coincidentally, they were both burned at the figurative political stake.

The trouble with Latham is by no means his doing alone. As I argued in my thesis:

While circumstances do not always allow for an ideal selection process this thesis concludes that the ALP failed to plan effectively for leadership succession and did not adequately scrutinise its two previous leaders. Crean was chosen because he seemed the only suitable candidate despite not having the full confidence of caucus. When he failed to gain the support of the Australian electorate the party turned in desperation to Latham who presented as an exciting new leader, provided generational change and had the capacity to engage voters with his vision. But Latham was also chosen without sufficient scrutiny of his abilities. His lack of experience in federal politics, his volatile temperament and allegations of unsavoury incidents from his past were all overlooked by a caucus desperate for a saviour who could turn the electoral fortunes of the party around.

Thus the tortured monolith of Latham was created by the party itself.

During my Honours thesis I refused to use The Latham Diaries as an academic source. I thought they were too biased, due to author being too close to the events that surrounded him. Without objectivity, I feel you cannot look at things from an academic standpoint. A good piece of academic writing is meant to examine the evidence, craft it into an argument, and then turn it into a persuasive piece of work. Using The Latham Diaries I felt removed this objectivity.

Yet here I am again revisiting Latham again as part of my PhD to explore his leadership in a wider context. This time I am not only exploring his leadership tenure as a single entity, but within the larger scope of the ALP throughout the past two decades. In this regard the following quote from the Diaries bring questions about the Latham leadership and what it means to the ALP party structure as a whole.

Machine politics has not only produced a crisis of methodology within the ALP; it has also led to a crisis of belief. The factional system of command and control has guttered the effectiveness of grass roots representation in the Party. Most local branches are rorted and empty. Labor conferences and policy committees are tightly stage managed, devoid of creativity and genuine debate. Party membership is in inexorable decline. The Party’s defining purpose now revolves around power and patronage, the fuel that sustains its factions but that ultimately drains the True Believers of conviction and belief.

Yet how much weight should this analysis be given? Some would argue that insights such as this should be taken at face value and be subject to greater investigation given the fact that he has worked at the coalface of the party structure. Yet on closer inspection I am not so sure.

Since Latham has left politics there have been literally tons of literature written about his political career and personality. The best two of these come from diametrically opposed angles. The first was an article written by Latham’s former Chief of Staff, Mike Richards for the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies in which he makes the following characterization of his former boss:

Latham’s behavior might best be characterized as that of a narcissistic loner, whose best and worst political outcomes were shaped by a psychological state -- an inflated but fragile sense of self enclosed by a shell like exterior that proved brittle and ultimately inadequate -- that disposed him to believe he could not trust anybody else and that he alone knew the way to political success.

Latham’s narcissistic and paranoid personality shaped a consistent pattern of political behavior. The core features of that style are a distinctive political brilliance and drive that is accompanied by paranoia and destructive tendencies -- anger, rage, envy and resentment -- which suggest an inner dynamic involving overweening ambition defending against (that is, compensating for) low self-esteem.

The second of these works is Bernard Lagan’s biographical work Loner: Inside A Labor Tragedy which concludes with the following quote from Latham:

The old party has become a very conservative institution run by conservative machine men (all from factions) so it is well suited to a conservative stand for nothing leader… it is not an organisation I can be optimistic about. It is beyond repair and beyond reform. That’s sad for all Australians who see Labor as our best hope for social justice in this country…. It’s a false hope.

The question now is what can Australian politics learn from the Latham experience? Can his arguments be taken seriously? Clearly the Liberal Party are falling into the pattern with Malcolm Turnbull as I highlighted yesterday. Leaders with egocentric personalities, volatile tempers and autocratic tendencies do not conform political party structures. I wonder if the Liberal Party will learn this the hard way like their ALP counterparts?

No comments:

Post a Comment